Didactic v. critical teaching

Should teachers invite students to think critically about evolution? And were the ancient Greeks dumb enough to believe the Homeric stories as historical accounts?

In an earlier post, I referred to an email from Mike O’Hare, but didn’t quote it because I couldn’t find it. Below is more or less the full text of that exchange.

Mike O’Hare wrote:

The debate over “teaching evolution” keeps tripping on a wrong interpretation of the phrase.

My daughter is about to start teaching math and science in sixth grade. What sorts of things could she say about evolution, with what consequences for the students?

At least the following:

(1) People evolved from bacteria (and all the rest of it). If you don’t say they did on the final, you will get a bad grade.

(2) Enough smart people think we evolved that we all need to pay attention to their ideas. Here’s what they say, and why they think what they do. You need to know enough about this thinking to answer questions on the final correctly, but you don’t have to believe it’s true. (Analogy: Shakespeare tells us that Bottom grew donkey ears. You have to know that for the English final–that Shakespeare said it, and what he meant us to think about Bottom–but you don’t have to believe there was a real Bottom, much less that he really grew such ears.)

(3) Enough smart people think we didn’t evolve that we all need to pay attention to their ideas. [Maybe not in science class, or maybe science class is just the right place for this.] (Analogy: all the really smart people in ancient Greece thought Athena personally meddled with the Trojan War and lots of other stuff. Almost no-one now thinks this, but you have to know what they thought and why, and show that on the literature exam…maybe even the history exam?).

(4) People were created at one go just like it says in Genesis. If you don’t say this, and that you believe it, on the final, you will get a bad grade. (strong version: you will burn eternally in Hell)

My daughter is really smart, but I don’t think she has the personal authority to support either 1 or 4. On the other hand, her personal expertise relative to the students is quite adequate for 2 and 3, and she can bring very persuasive evidence of them with her (that is, I emphasize, evidence of what a lot of smart people think, evidence that petrified bone-shaped things exist, evidence that Shakespeare said this and that).

In fact, one of her most important duties is to be alert to students treating her as a source of dogma (or an intellectual bully) and to undermine it: students who think she’s doing (1), when she’s actually doing (2) using verbal shorthand like omitting the phase “evolutionary theory holds that” from most of what she says, have the wrong idea entirely. Indeed, if one of them goes to the library and catches her misrepresenting what Darwin said, I say bring cupcakes and lick a gold star.

If we are more careful about the differences among teaching students what this and that theory says and why, telling students that this or that proposition is true, and helping them learn to do their own thinking, the controversy should be a lot more tractable.

To which I replied:

Right, for a college course, or for very bright and inquisitive sixth-graders. Probably too confusing for average sixth-graders, and of course half of all sixth-graders are below average. The teaching approach you suggest requires that the students hold in mind a model of other people’s minds, and hold in mind the idea “Some of what I currently believe is wrong.”

I agree that at some point they need to become critical thinkers, but at some prior point they need to just learn stuff. And note that if the teacher users “some smart people think” about evolution, but teaches the heliocentric theory as an example of scientific progress rather than as a live controversy, the students will get the false idea that the Darwinian question is open in a way the Copernican question isn’t.

O’Hare again:

OK, there’s a continuum of stuff kids need to learn, and learn to use. At one end are interesting and fecund controversies, at the other are (i)addition and multiplication tables (ii) vacuous conventions like how to spell eight and ate.

I’m OK with having the boundary between didaction and case discussion depend in part on the politics of the larger world. There was a time when the roundness of the world was a weird and novel idea, held by few, and when the idea that the British didn’t have the duty to occupy India and straighten out the heathens was another. Some of our current bizarre ideas may be like these. Might as well teach without pointlessly activating parents’ immune systems when possible, and “some people think that…” is a good way to do it.

One more footnote: It seems wildly implausible that many smart ancient Greeks believed in Athena, and her role in the fall of Troy, the way you and I believe in Amazon.com, or even the way you and I believe in gravity. To the sophisticated, Athena personified strategic calculation. Since strategic calculation is a real force in the world, there was nothing silly about believing in, and venerating, “Athena” in that sense, no matter how implausible some of the Homeric stories are.

I was taught a dumb, dismissive version of Greek religion (under the topic heading “classical mythology”) in high school. The teacher and the textbook told us that the Greeks used to believe a bunch of silly stuff about gods and goddesses because they weren’t smart enough to explain natural processes scientifically, and that it was important to learn the stories because they’re referred to in later literature and because we name missiles and household cleansers after Greek deities and heroes.

Then I got to college and read Homer and Hesiod with Paul Desjardins, and came to understand something of the power and beauty of Greek religion (without, of course, being tempted to build an altar on which to sacrifice oxen to Zeus). We also read Plato, and Paul helped me see how Plato kept returning to the idea that a given proposition (e.g., “Justice is giving to each his own” and “Justice is the interest of the stronger” in Republic I) can have some interpretations that are valuable and others that are trivial or vicious.

Of course it’s easy to find trivial and vicious interpretations of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic narratives and doctrines, and to find actual Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believe the narratives and doctrines in their ugliest and most literal senses. But as Don Marquis’s Archy says, “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com